Music or presentation?

(What follows will be explored in my book, in chapter VII, as the outline currently stands.)

Yesterday I impulsively — after a thoughtful e-mail from a friend — raised a big question on Twitter:

Key question for the future of classical music. Is the music itself a problem, or only the way we present it?

Plus a followup:

Two problems with

the music. Too much of it comes from the past. And our performance

style is more constricted than it used to be.

So here we see the virtues and limitations of Twitter. I’d “mindcasted” a thought that a lot of people picked up on. I got 18 responses, more than I usually get. They ranged from this:

constricted? As someone who has been through the puppy mill they call classical music training, i’d say that’s an understatement. (from @colettecello)

To this:

surely that’s not a serious question?! The music itself is, of course, perfection.(from @JAMES_RHODES)

But of course a tweet doesn’t give enough room for subtleties. So — since this seems to be such a pregnant question for so many people — let me go a little deeper.

Of course the music itself — the actual compositions — can’t be a problem. The classical repertoire is a wildly mixed bag, as we should recognize, ranging from the heights of art to happy entertainment, but that’s what all kinds of art have been. The classical repertoire stands firm through history, however we choose to use it.

But — unlike, let’s say — a painting, classical pieces need to be performed. So there’s always an element of presentation involved. The question I asked, therefore, ought to be reframed. Maybe like this. Is the problem, right now, only the external ways we present the music? By which I mean concert hall formality, and the like. Can we, in other words, improve things simply by changing the external presentation, while we play the music exactly as we currently do? (Which means not just how we play the repertoire, but what repertoire we choose to play.)

Or do we need to change the way we play the music, too?

I think we do. In two ways, as I said in my tweet. We need to stop losing ourselves in the culture of the past. Doing that can be fascinating, maybe, for us, inside the classical music bubble, but it’s not so compelling to the outside world. Name another art that’s so fixated on the past. As I and others have pointed out, many times, art museums are way ahead of us. Their shows of contemporary art are often their most distinguished — and popular — attractions.

And we can play the music much more freely. Which might mean radical freedom, by present standards. But it might simply mean playing more like Artur Rubinstein and other great classical artists of a couple of generations ago, whose performances — which can be wonderfully personal, and even populist, while still being stylistically correct — often astound the students I currently teach.

Big questions. I hope i’ve defined them more clearly.

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  1. Jon Hurd says

    For me, traditional “classical” music is like my parents — I love them, they are beautiful, safe, familiar, etc., etc. On the other hand, new, contemporary music is like my girl friends and spouse — exciting, unpredictable, interesting. sometimes disappointing, but always engaging.

    Love it!

    I’ll be quoting you, with full credit, of course.

  2. says

    I agree that it is both–but depends on the objective. To someone new to listening, hearing the music is enough of a new experience, so what counts, I think, in grabbing the attention of new listeners, is the presentation. And I think striving towards keeping things fresh and non-rigid, and definitely promoting newer works should always be a priority.

  3. says

    A year ago, I would have agreed that classical music was stuck in the past and the presentation was unappealing to a modern audience–and thus, perhaps, doomed.

    However, I now believe this is wrong. There’s an audience that wants in to the concert hall. They just need access and exposure.

    We began a new music program at an inner city middle school this year. Strings would be the instruments of choice–even over drums–if we had more of them available. (Violas are the ‘cool’ instrument.) When I told the string players they could be playing Beethoven by the end of the semester, I expected teenage apathy. But they were literally dancing down the hall with excitement.

    At our free lessons (open to the public), the demand for string lessons is outpacing our ability to provide both teachers and instruments. They all want to play classical music.

    Most of these students have never been to the symphony.

    When we started our free lessons, we were expecting students who wanted to play popular music. We don’t even bring the electric guitars any more. We’ve had to purchase method books for french horn. If we had oboes and bassoons, we’d have students.

    Thanks, Jeane. This is important to know about. Good work.

    What happens, though, when these kids grow up? I teach students at Juilliard — young professionals — who aren’t always very eager to go to classical concerts. For a middle school kid, classical music can easily seem new and exciting. To someone older, who’s taken a position in contemporary culture, classical music — even if the music itself is appealing — might not have so strong a siren call. At least that’s my experience, even with young classical music professionals.

  4. Tristan says

    Discussions of performance style always bring my mind to one performer: Tatiana Nikolayeva. She doesn’t take any real liberties with the score, but somehow she captures the essence that she, Bach and I share.

    A lot of other performances I heard could just as well have been played by Trimpin’s Orchestra: Every note played exactly right.

    A composer can write an intensely emotional piece, but the notes can only carry the meaning, they are not the meaning itself. An artist must be not just aware of this meaning, but must embody it and fill every note with it. It is almost like there is a “psychic energy” that has to be placed on each note, and the notes then carry it to the audience. It’s as much about the performers as it is about the composer.

    I had this illustrated to me when a friend of mine played me two different performances of the Kyrie from the Martin Mass. One sounded like they were singing a choral piece, and one sounded like they understood the words, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”

    Nicely put, and very true. In the old days, great classical musicians talked like this. Not so much these days.

    What you say is especially true, I think, of Messiaen. If you don’t catch the complete religious ecstasy in his work — and especially in the fast, dissonant passages — you’ve betrayed it.

  5. Bill Brice says

    I’m not so sure I agree with you that folks outside the bubble are less fascinated with the past than classical music buffs. Think of all the great “period” films made over the years — and still being made — that attract large audiences. And isn’t the allure of that TV soap “Mad Men” mostly about its scrupulous pastness?

    As for pop music, specific examples elude me. But I’d still be willing to bet there’s quite a lot of referencing to earlier pop styles going on there. In fact, I believe some self-conscious link with the past is pretty basic to the very notion of Art.

    I do agree with the “puppy mill” tweet from @colettecello.

    I’d never say that people outside classical music don’t like things from the past. All your examples show that. But in classical music involvement with the past dominates. And it doesn’t feel like involvement with the past! If you watch some fabulous old film like “Grand Hotel,” you know you’re in a past era. If you listen to Beethoven, I don’t think it feels like that. So we lose out twice. The concentration on the past robs us of contemporary classical music culture, or rather blocks contemporary culture from making much of an imprint on classical music.

    And then the past music doesn’t sound like it’s from the past, so we lose genuine contact with the past as well.

    “Mad Men” (which I love) is another story. I grew up in that era, and I don’t think the show represents it exactly as it was. Instead, the show takes a position on the past things it shows us. The role of women, for instance — that’s strongly underlined, presented with much more of a scathing focus than you’d see in actual material from that time. You might watch an old Doris Day movie and understand that you’re seeing women as we now know they don’t need to be. But that consciousness isn’t in the movie. Whereas with “Mad Men,” it’s put in there consciously, underlined, standing front and center.

    That’s exactly what I’d love to see classical music performances do with music from the past (not to say the same issues would necessarily be raised). That does happen in opera productions, often enough, but rarely in (let’s say) a performance of a Beethoven piano sonata.

  6. David Cavlovic says

    If classical music (and jazz) were to properly divest itself of its “elite” status, such twitter questions that you pose would be moot.

    My vision of that will be the final chapter of my book. I suspect that in pracitce it’ll be a more radical change than many people are ready for.

  7. says

    Hi Greg.

    Great questions! I appreciate you considering them and discussing them so well. As to presentation I think there is an underlying issue. How often have you heard from people “I don’t like that kind of music”? Popular music “speaks” to people more readily or they think they can’t appreciate “art music” because it is an elitist thing. This would be a different situation if the arts were promoted as an imperative in education today. There is an elitist quality though about the arts since anyone creating or performing has studied and worked at it a considerable amount and has a deep understanding developed, an expertise. Not so of the general public. I believe that historically there has been less of a schism between those who appreciate art music as opposed to popular music and that this schism can be lessened with arts being a priority in education. Great works of the past are certainly inspiring to those studying and working in those art forms but the general public today needs to be taught about it, to be brought along because they haven’t learned about it or they don’t see the relevance it has in their lives. Today artists need to make their work available to the general public, to play anywhere that people are comfortable, to get off the pedestal and join the masses, to be entertaining (god forbid!).Performances need to be available in all kinds of spaces not just performing arts centers. We need to connect and share and inspire in all ways possible. Playing programs that have an historic work as the oddity can help this too. Considerate programing and generosity of spirit are essential. Today for the arts to flourish we can no longer merely produce it and expect that we’ve done our job. Rather we must attract,interest,educate and encourage people by how we can present our work. Another aspect of being creative beings.

  8. says

    Maybe part of the problem is that before recorded music there were lots more people making music and what we currently consider the canon was just the top of a pyramid of music and musicians that’s no longer there underneath, or is much diminished? As to presentation, maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or. Perhaps you’ve covered this and I’ve missed it, but why can’t large organizations doing things the old fashioned way try some experimental things on the side. If they work and bring in customers they’ll figure out how to expand such projects.

    Publicly (in the blog, for instance) and privately I’ve been after mainstream organizations to do alternative things. And sometimes someone at the mainstream orgs will be interested. But it’s never a priority, it’s not their world, they probably believe in doing it only in theory (not in practice), and, most crucially, they don’t have staff time or money or time to pay attention. Even a large orchestra can be running close to the edge, financially and otherwise.

  9. Janis says

    Presentation is the problem insofar as the music isn’t meant to be touched. Classical music is presented as a closed canon, a sort of liturgy to which nothing can be added or taken away. One isn’t encouraged to play with it.

    In a way, it reminds me of the fanfiction movement that so many people have fun with. There are people who disdain it because It Isn’t What The Creator (All Hail The Mighty Creator) Wanted! How Dare You Alter The Sacred Text!

    And there are a lot of people on the other side of the fence who, when presented with any entertainment, immediately think, “What if X had happened? What it Y hadn’t died? What if Z and Q had met five years earlier? What if the whole thing had been staged in outer space? What if they had met General Custer?”

    It just depends on whether or not you see the text/music as unalterable text or as a playground of sorts where you can reach in and screw with it.

    What needs to be done is people need to learn how to fic Beethoven, Mozart, Haendel, Rach, all those people. Maybe it’ll be an on-the-spot improv sort of thing like Montero does. Maybe it’ll be like what Emerson, Lake, and Palmer did with Ginastera. Maybe it’ll be Franklin singing arias. Maybe it’ll be a chamber orchestra adapting Journey, while a rock band tries their hand at Haydn interpretations. Why can’t there be a concert where a chamber orchestra will play the gigue I like so much from Giulio Cesare in Egitto … and then we get to hear a pianist adaptation of it, then a four-piece rock band, then a jazz band, then a steel drum band … ? How FUN would that be? Sort of the “What if Luke Skywalker had been born in ancient Rome?” version of Star Wars, only with music.

    As much as fanfiction and related works are regarded with sneers and disdain, their complete assumption of entitlement when it comes to reaching into their beloved works and tweaking things is what the classical music world needs. People need to do with Brahms and Rossini what teenagers do with Star Trek and other geekly fare.

    Interestingly, the latest generation of producers and creators of that sort of “ficcable” genre entertainment has come of age after the upwelling of fan-related tweaking that Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture.” Many TV and movie producers and book writers now are perfectly at ease with and welcoming of people tweaking their works. Or if they aren’t entirely at home with it, they are at least tolerant of it.

    We need to stop seeing it as unalterable sacred scripture, and start looking at it as a toychest. We need to FIC classical music.

    (BTW, I’d strongly recommend you read Jenkins’ work on participatory culture to get an idea of what happens when a strong, literate community reaches in and takes ownership of their shared “canon” story and starts reworking it to their hearts’ content. That whole metaphor is VERY relevant to what you’re pursuing here: making classical music and education an owned, social, participatory culture that reflects and integrates the values of the audience.)

    Terrific thoughts, Janis. And examples. Thanks. The texts used to be a lot less sacred. When I was young, people reorchestrated Handel, for instance. Then, of course, we disapproved of that. But now I think we’ve come to the point where we can see Beecham’s final reorchestration of Messiah as an alternative choice. But not yet is anyone likely to program it! I’d love to see that happen. Along with the other things you suggested.

    I do think change is coming, down many avenues at once.

  10. Janis says

    BTW, I think the book that you might find intriguing is called “Textual Poachers” and is focused on the participatory culture of fanfiction. A lot of it may not be entirely relevant to your topic, but the idea of an entire highly social and literate culture with utter disrespect for the velvet rope that separates audience from creator is a huge part of what you’re driving at.

    I’ve seen the same sorts of conversations happen in that arena (much less so now, more often about twenty years ago), where someone will posit something outside of the canon (Holmes and Watson were sleeping together, what have you). A more orthodox, “liturgical” fan will react with outrage, saying that it wasn’t what Doyle intended and therefore no one should even speculate on it.

    A more participatory fan might shoot back: “You know what, Doyle’s dead, and once his ideas go into my head, my interpretation of them is mine.”

    It just reminds me of a quote I ran into while reading an article about classical improv, where a teacher asked, “Do you think Chopin would authorize you to change his text?”

    First off, I think Chopin would wonder why the hell we weren’t making our own texts, but I’d be willing to bet further that had the question been asked with the name William Shakespeare in place of Chopin, and the respondent had been someone who thought that Romeo should have slept with Mercutio instead, the response might have been: “Who cares what he’d think?”

    The classical music world is further hamstrung because the velvet rope doesn’t just separate listener from creator, but performer from creator. Not only is the audience tacitly forbidden from altering the text in their minds, but such what-if games are forbidden even to the people playing the stuff! That’s insane.

    Another good book in the “change the text area” is Lydia Goehr’s “The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.” Lydia argues, very persuasively, that the very notion of a musical work — including its unalterable text — didn’t have any meaning before the 19th century.

    What a great point about performers, creators, and the velvet rope!

  11. says

    @Janis urges:

    People need to do with Brahms and Rossini what teenagers do with Star Trek and other geekly fare.

    I’ve been Blogging Pachelbel this past week, and have encountered for the first a guitar phenomenon that’s been around for a while, Canon Rock.

    Canon Rock seems exactly analogous to fan fiction, but without nearly as deep an understanding of the original source material as is found in a lot of fan fiction.

    On the other hand, what the guitar kids respond to in Pachelbel is not the same thing that I respond to, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that their responses are inauthentic. My only worry is that they are responding to surfaces and not to essences.

    Of course, some would say that’s a distinction that shouldn’t exist…

    One person’s surface might be someone else’s essence. And it’s certainly a conversation you can have. “You notice X about this piece, I notice Y.”

    I’m sorry that this comment got caught in a spam filter, apparently because of the link you put in it. No fault of yours, and nothing I can do about it. The filter is way above me on the chain of command.

    David W. Fenton

  12. says

    Greg–all good questions. It is difficult for me to speak for other artists, and audiences, but for me, I have always fashioned my own career in the way Artur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz did, along with their many colleagues. All the while keeping fresh interpetations of the well known repertory, they were always premiering new works, and I have found audiences very accepting of new works, and orchestras eager to be part of my commissioning projects. I also believe that specific repertory can be programmed, tageting specific age groups of audiences, depending on each city.

  13. says

    On Saturday night, I attended a concert of the SF Symphony, with Michael Tilson Thomas. The evening was as much theater and presentation, as it was music. At the end of the concert there were cheers and standing ovations – for the orchestra and for the conductor. The enthusiasm was also for the format and the education and the connection that the symphony and MTT were obviously trying to have with the audience. It was an experiment, it was “new”, but it was tasteful and classy and engaging. As you mention in your post, the music “can’t be the problem”. It wasn’t on Saturday. Many of us came to hear just this music. But the way it was presented was a smashing success and totally new. Of course, there were/will be detractors, but they were outnumbered by the scores of season ticket holders cheering and shouting “bravo”.

    Songs of a Wayfarer, featuring Thomas Hampson, was given a pretty straight-ahead performance, but it was preceded by the Adagietto (sp?) of Mahler’s 5th, and a lecture demonstration involving the orchestra and various song and orchestral excerpts. The 2nd half of the program were movements from the 7th and 9th symphonies, and then a tour through the final movement of the 9th symphony, including a bit of a revised ending. It worked – really. All of it was made possible by teleprompters for MTT to read through a series of mini-lectures about Mahler’s life, his music, recurring musical motives, and so on. More of this explicit engagement with audience members seems to me should be on the docket for the future. It was a big success here in SF, and I’m sure it would be welcome in other places.

    To answer your question:

    Can we, in other words, improve things simply by changing the external presentation, while we play the music exactly as we currently do? (Which means not just how we play the repertoire, but what repertoire we choose to play.)

    Yes, we can improve things by simply changing the external presentation, as was done on Saturday in San Francisco. But I think in this case, the external presentation also changed the way the orchestra and MTT played, and probably how we as audience members listened. The result was tremendous.

    Thanks for starting this dialogue.

  14. says

    Who has the most success with classical music? Andre Rieu and Dudamel. Both have personal charisma with both audience and orchestra. Both fill houses, but Andre Rieu’s house on his grueling tours are basketball arenas and football stadiums, huge town squares like his hometown. Mom and I have many Rieu videos and play them often, but we seldom play the earlier ones. I figured out why. In the later ones, Rieu started using the giant TV screens that brought the audience right into the action, even from the back rows and sides. So instead of having people wave their arms and sway only in the first fifty rows, the whole arena was charged. Adding TV could be done for live concerts. I saw a church setup that had about four cameras, with one operator with a joystick at the back.

    Rieu is a verbal pitchman as well, with his more frequently used word, “Enormous.” “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d now like to introduce to you, an ENORMOUS talent…” and “your enormous welcome has touched our hearts.” He introduces each piece as well, works in local references, and bad jokes. He speaks many languages.

    Being the Johann Strauss Orchestra, he took clues from the period for candy colored costumes, and he is both solo violin and conductor. Is there any reason why symphonies cannot have a few variations of dress? A Schubert style coat and slacks…formal wear through the ages, to white coat tux. Perhaps there could be a Casual Fridays.

    Musician interactions. Rieu stages “knowing glances” between singers and musicians. He also stages intentional gaffs, mock rivalries (usually involving the gal clarinetist), instrument juggling, etc. The musicians also do double duty where a singer or dancer is needed. Of course, it’s circus, but this is how he breaks down the barrier between performer and audience.

    Somehow in all this mayhem, Rieu is able to calm down this huge audience when something truly moving is being performed. Photos of the audience will show members in teary rapture.

    Rieu also gives very long programs with perhaps three encores. You really get you money’s worth. Orchestras could throw in a few encores, a showstopper or something sublime, perhaps a movement from a concerto featuring a first chair…or some modern work, Gershwin, a movie theme song. Why not?

    Michael Tilson Thomas has a number of ways to create audience loyalty. His “keeping Score” programs are incredibly engaging and feature bits about the musicians as well as background to the pieces. His YouTube orchestra was perhaps more successful in buzz-factor than being a viable way to work, but I’ll bet we’ll see more of this in the future.

    I think the future will also look back on this period of composition and find our classics hidden in filmscores.

  15. Steve Birchall says

    At least conductors and soloists are beginning to talk to their audiences, both at pre-concert discussions, and at the performance itself. What they have to say can give valuable insights into their approach to the music, and offer a new listening experience to audience members. It also makes them more human and approachable.

    But the exaggerated formality of concerts just has to go. First of all, lose the penguin suits, which are an artifact of the 19th century and throw up barriers between performers and audiences. Second of all, lose the uptight attitudes that lead conductors to walk off stage when a cell phone goes off, or soloists to stop playing when the audience coughs too much. Some remarks before the performance to remind audiences that they are participants in a completely aural experience, and to remind them that being quiet is essential to their own enjoyment. Talk about shadings of dynamics, tone color, vibrato that are in the quiet passages and they will strain to hear them.

    I agree with everything you say, and I especially love your final point! Give the audience something to listen for, and they’ll pay very close attention. I’ve seen that happen many times.

    And if you want them to pay special attention to a quiet passage, play it really, really, really quietly. This kind of talk to the audience becomes a challenge to the musicians as well. Are they doing enough to make these important passages noticeable?

  16. Catrina Boisson says

    So many great ideas. And all more than 140 characters long! For me it comes down to audience engagement, which is likely to a take a rethinking of both what you play AND how you present what you perform. While most other businesses would have been out of business if they had delivered the same product in almost exactly the same way for centuries, for the last 200+ years we seem to have gotten away with asking our audiences to come to the same formal hall, to sit in the same velvet seat, keep their mouths shut and their hands to themselves (except when appropriate to clap) and do little or nothing to actually contribute to the overall experience. Think about it – in half that time, phones have evolved from heavy bakelite instruments that connected you to Ernestine the operator to devices that look more likely to beam you up than call a friend. We need to consider not just what we as artists or presenters believe our audiences SHOULD experience but also what they might WANT to experience. Audiences today are asking to be heard, they want to participate, they want to have a relationship with the artists and the organization. We would probably all acknowledge that what sets the live performing arts apart from the ipod is the electricity created by people gathered together in a communal space. So why are we still so reluctant to invite our audiences to help shape that experience?

    Agreed. In defense of Twitter, I’ll say that yesterday I read through a Twitter summary — in many, many tweets — of a conference on digital technology that the London Symphony hosted. The tweets had been sent during the conference. Very stimulating, I thought. Of course not every subtlety was presented, but an amazing amount came through.;

  17. David Cavlovic says

    Steve Brichall said “At least conductors and soloists are beginning to talk to their audiences, both at pre-concert discussions, and at the performance itself. What they have to say can give valuable insights into their approach to the music, and offer a new listening experience to audience members. It also makes them more human and approachable.”

    THIS is the best way to de-elite-ize Classical music. I like it very much.

  18. Janis says

    I’d still say that the music itself needs to be touched and opened up to being messed with. Not messed up, just played around with. That will take a new education paradigm to get away from the “puppy mill” of people who vomit from terror if they miss one 32nd note, and away from competition judges and masterclass teachers who scream like harpies if students do anything truly original.

    Students who are raised under that new education paradigm will bring their new way of playing and thinking about the music with them naturally. It’s a bit like helmets for hockey players. As the kids’ leagues started using them, they just started showing up when those kids moved up into the NHL and brought their standard equipment with them. No angst, no fighting over it.

    All the talks and video screens are nice, but it’s as if we’re trying to make up for the boringness of the music by adding flash and dazzle through the other senses. We have to get away from this medieval religious attitude that the music itself is an untouchable sacred text interpreted for the common lay folk by trained clergy. Show that the music can be played with and isn’t graven in stone.

    Have a good, vivacious chamber orchestra (like the Aussies; they’re great) knock out something bright and lively from Haendel, like that gigue I mentioned. Then, let a rock band show their interpretation. Then, let an orchestra tear into “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rock of Ages.” Get a good shredder like EVH and turn him loose on some Rachmaninoff. (I’d commit crimes to hear someone like him interpret the megacaffeinated musical moment #4.)

    Have them then play something together. There’s no reason why a good quintet consisting of a lead and bass guitar, a trumpet and a good strong oboe and clarinet can’t chew on something together.

    Stop treating the music itself as untouchable, and start blurring the boundaries. The performers themselves don’t respect those boundaries anymore; Monserrat Caballe loved Freddie Mercury to bits. Why should anyone else worry about boundaries? It risks making Thurston McWarbucks IV walk out of the concert hall when some guy with long hair and jeans starts shredding Rach, but there will be four people half his age to take his place.

    Such good points! I agree, especially about the playing. It needs to be better. Not that it’s bad right now, but there’s so often something uninvolving about it. Loud passages don’t burst out with loudness, soft passages don’t keep us on the edge of our seats. Sometimes I’ve said to people who’ve proposed long scenarios of things they want to say about a particular piece before playing it, “Well, good. I love it. I’m sure the audience will be interested. And now can you think about how you could play the piece so that many things in your presentation will be communicated simply by your playing?”

    I’m not saying people shouldn’t talk to the audience. But the final frontier, I think, is playing so irresistible and so clear that not much needs to be said.

  19. says

    I guess a question I don’t hear asked is, whatever change (music or presentation) who are the people you are trying to get to hear the music? Is classical music for the blue-haired opera lovers, the young, hip new music crowd? Wall Streeters? the people in the projects and others who rarely go to classical concerts?

    It seems like the classical music ‘establishment’ turns it’s back on many people, whether through high ticket prices, stuffy concert hall ‘etiquette’ (when was the last time you went to a performance that the audience and/or performers looked as if it were fun!?), lack of a racially and economically diverse ensemble (and hence audience), a main focus/perception that it’s for old, rich people, and in many other ways. It’s funny that many of the large classical institutions and groups are having troubles attracting the same types of audiences many smaller new music, contemporary classical, jazz, and alternate rock ensembles seem to have little trouble getting and keeping. Sure, Dudamel is creating excitement in the classical world, but I don’t see that filtering to the many more who listen to rap or hip-hop or alt-rock (Dudamel iPhone app notwithstanding). And when the institutions do program things that are attractive to those (mostly) younger, non-insider audiences the attitude from the players and regular audience is one of derision; that they are ‘slumming’ playing movie or video game music or backing up some rock group. And people wonder why some people don’t grow up to love classical music or want to go back to —- Concert Hall.

    Look, I think that the best of any music can speak to anyone, whatever the genre (if they are open to listening). Respecting and making personal connections with the people you are trying to get to the performances, is always the way to go. Pre-concert talks and the like are ok, but going to the communities, working and talking with the people you want, will begin to help make some (not all) fans of the music. Also I think part of the problem is just economic. Certainly the large classical institutions draw a lot of financial oxygen from any market. $10,000 or $20,000 might not make much difference to the NY Phil, but make it an easily available grant to a hungry new music outfit, I think you would immediately see more diverse, daring, interesting (not always successful, but that’s ok) programming that would attract a more diverse (racially, aged, and economically) group of people, especially if they aren’t charging $50-75+ for seats, and would feel more real and relevant to the listeners. Sure, some lower or middle income, non-classical music insider person probably could spend the money on a classical concert, but a real question is why would they if they are made to feel the music isn’t for them?

  20. Janis says

    There has to be more than one way to present this stuff, too … A rock band performing Rachmaninoff (ooh, the puns just suggest themselves) in a club doesn’t preclude an orchestra doing it. There’s bunches of ways it can be done — this is why it’s vital to free up the music and start a participatory culture around it. Once you get it into the hands of many different kinds of people so that they:

    1) fall in love with it, and

    2) feel entitled to screw around with it

    they’ll naturally bring their own zillion different perspectives to it. Someone like me who loves arena rock will bring that sensibility into it, and I may post mp3s of my attempts to a few melodic rock boards. (Think “Dove sei?” as played by Jonathan Cain.) Somebody else who has a friend in a drum circle may jam with them. Somebody else who likes reggae or knows someone with a Les Paul will take the music to other places.

    Hand it to the people with a blessing from on high to do whatever the hell they want with it, and it will show up anywhere people do, and uniquely flavored in whatever way they want.

    This will allow the music to adapt itself to any environment, draw in the players and any audiences, all of whom will feel that the music is definitely “for them,” and solve the problem is what should “we” do with classical music to make it appeal to “them?”

    Hand the music over to “them.” They will know what they want to hear from it and do with it. And it has to start with music education encouraging kids to mess with the music and mix it up.

  21. Robert Berger says

    Unfortunately , you’ve created a false dichotomy between old and new in classical music despite the fact that the two aren’t the least bit mutually exclusive.

    The fact is that we need them both. We can’t do without either. Yes, it’s vital to give new classical works a chance to be heard, whether they’re any good or not, and that we have to wait for time to determine what lasts.

    But we can’t just stop playing music from the past,either. And if we are going to do this,supposedly to give more new music a chance to be heard, where do we start ? Which works by which composers are we to stop playing ?

    Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Wagner ?

    In fact, there is no lack of new classical music today. An enormous amount of new music has been premiered in recent years by many,many living composers wherever classical music is performed. For example,a considerable number of new operas have been premiered in recent years, for example, by opera houses everywhere,

    some to considerable audience acclaim .

    It only seems as though there is too little new music being performed today if you fail to realize how infinitely more diverse the classical repertoire is today than in the past, or that there are infinitely more orchestras and opera companies than in the past.

    We don’t have Rock, pop music, Rap, country music and Jazz from two or three centuries ago.

    But classical music has been around for a vastly longer time. We can’t judge it by the standards of other musics.

  22. says


    Mary: We are independent of the school system, but have offered to teach at the middle school at no cost. I would not say the school system is supportive. There are only a handful of middle school band programs–and the latest proposal wipes those out. The system has unused instruments that we’d love to teach their students to play, but they are being singularly difficult about helping us do that.

    Would classical music have the elitist taint if all these people that I find want access could get it? I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff facing a very unexpected stampede! b

  23. John Shibley says

    Greg, I think your questions actually constricts the responses by assuming, albeit tacitly, that there are only two possible reasons classical music could be in trouble, and both of them have to do with the institution. One might as well ask “Was the problem with the dinosaurs that they were too big or too stupid?”

    The problem with the dinosaurs was neither. The problem with them, and the problem with orchestras, is that the world changed. Every year, fewer and fewer people feel that the best way to curate their own artistic experiences art is to sit for close to two hours and listen to an orchestra play music that someone else choose, no matter how wonderful the orchestra plays, or how transcendent the composition. Technology, and (more critically) the social changes that technology has caused, has convinced people that they should be able, indeed are entitled, to be active arbiters of their artists lives, either by curating those lives, or by actually creating things.

    Faced with this revolution, what’s an average orchestra to do?

  24. Janis says

    Short comment (yeah right) — this is already taking place regardless of what “we” may think must be done to make “them” listen to classical music. If you go to YouTube and search on classical improvisation, you turn up rather a lot of that sort of thing where people have seized on the music, tweaked the dials and added and removed bits, making it entirely their own. Not just classical, either — you’ll find a lot of improvisations on famous rock guitar solos as well.

    It’s underway. “They” are already doing it, thanks to the tools that make participatory culture not only possible, but almost demand its emergence. “We” haven’t a prayer of shaping it.

  25. Bill says

    Classical music = elitist?

    Hmmm. Well, it isn’t the cost of tickets, because the prices for “pop” (rock, heavy metal etc.) are not exactly cheap. I pay about 65 per ticket for Dallas Symphony (subscriber, excellent seats). That is not out of line for concert prices here.

    Is it the “stuffyness”? Perhaps, but do we want people to stand and wave during the music — to use cell phones during even the quiet parts, to sing along? I don’t think so. I go to HEAR the music.

    Perhaps it is partially a niche market… there are MANY subcategories in the nonclassical market, not all of which are booming. So it’s not exactly fair to compare one niche (classical) to ALL the rest.

    In Dallas we have a great new Music Director, who does none of the “hip” things but knocks the audience off their seats. Last week’s Mahler Symphony #1 had the largest standing ovation I’ve seen in over 25 years of concerts here.

    There’s more than one way to excite an audience.

  26. says

    Hmmm. Well, it isn’t the cost of tickets, because the prices for “pop” (rock, heavy metal etc.) are not exactly cheap. I pay about 65 per ticket for Dallas Symphony (subscriber, excellent seats). That is not out of line for concert prices here.

    Yes pop, rock, and rap concerts can cost as much or more than some classical concerts, but there is a question of value for the money. Some non-classical listening younger person feels that that pop, rock, rap concert (or pro baseball, football, basketball ticket, to use another example) is worth the money because it will be a fun, cool, hip, experience. It offers something tangible to them, even though it might be expensive, they’ll gladly pay it. Classical music, for the non-classical potential audience member, the cost of entry is just too high for them to see any reward from it.

    Is it the “stuffyness”? Perhaps, but do we want people to stand and wave during the music — to use cell phones during even the quiet parts, to sing along? I don’t think so. I go to HEAR the music.

    Being a composer, I definitely am interested in hearing the music as well, but I would love to see more passion coming from the audience (without being disruptive and rude-I actually talk about this in the comments section of a blog posting about Audience Etiquette). That would also extend to the performers as well. Is it too much to ask the musicians to at least look like it is enjoyable and not just a perfunctory (well-paying) job? Isn’t the joy from music making one reason we all got into music in the first place? Maybe they are having a fun, enjoyable time, but often it is hard to tell. When I see a (usually younger) contemporary classical ensemble (both established and up and coming), they may be seriously engaged with the music, but I get the sense from their body language and facial expressions (and usually from the performance itself) that it is fun and enjoyable; that they are really into the music. This is also true of rock, rap, some non-J@LC jazz performances. Does this happen at institutional orchestral or opera performances? I guess over many years I’ve seen it a handful times, but there needs to be more of it.

    Perhaps it is partially a niche market… there are MANY subcategories in the nonclassical market, not all of which are booming. So it’s not exactly fair to compare one niche (classical) to ALL the rest.

    You don’t have to compare classical music to other genres to see where the mainstream classical institutions often fail in attracting a more racially, economically, and age diverse audience. The smaller, often more contemporary institutions and groups are drawing some of those same types of people, with some areas more well attracted than others. Sometimes I think the large classical institutions are recycling the same kinds of audience: older, white, similar educational background, well-moneyed (or at least enough to have some disposable income). Is this truly the demographic that they believe can help to make classical music vital and relevant in the 21st century and beyond?

    By making the presentation more attractive (and the music not exclusive of the past), there’s more than one kind of audience that can be excited by classical music…

  27. Janis says

    I wonder how many people here (well, where “here” means “within the community of classical lovers who sense that there is a demographic crisis going on”) love pop or rock. Not like or respect as a part of the contemporary music scene, but love. And not the super-obscure prog stuff, either … but radio-play sorts of music. I’m just not sensing a lot of first-person experience in the discussions of having, for example, held up a lighter during a power ballad at any point.

  28. says

    And Janis, I think that is a huge part of the problem. If there were more of those types of people who love pop, rock, hop-hop, etc. or respect that popular music can be vital, in the audiences, listening on the radio, downloading the music, or more importantly making some of the decisions of these institutions I think there would more exciting, interesting things to attract new blood and to make things more true to today’s world, than what is happening now in much of the classical music world.

  29. Janis says

    Joe, I’m starting to think of this a bit like the “gays in the military” thing, where people are wondering about “letting” them in when they’re already there — in small numbers, and feeling very isolated, but there. The honchos in charge imagine they aren’t, but they are.

    There are few of us who love both types of music, but I can’t imagine that I’m the only one. And not the super-obscure stuff, but the “appeals to a wide audience” stuff like Rossini, Chopin, Queen, Styx, Haendel, Journey, Nine Inch Nails, and Mozart. (I’m showing my age, but replace the 80s bands with Nirvana and Savage Garden for 90s and whatever’s popular nowdays for 00s music.)

    Instead of turning it into a situation where “we” try to figure out how to appeal to “them,” why not find out where the “thems” lurking in your midst unknown are … and ask? Partly, I suppose this is my own desire to find out that I’m not alone. I’m tired of bringing up opera in rock settings and being told that it’s a bunch of stupid fat Italians ruining perfectly good music, and mentioning Art Garfunkel as very nearly a chest-voice male alto at a classical concert and having people look at me like I just put cat poop under their noses. (Thank dawg I didn’t mention Steve Perry or Dennis DeYoung; they’d have peed themselves.)

    It might be useful to reconceptualize the problem not as the future of classical music, but the barriers between the classical world and the pop/rock world — the problems they cause, where they came from, and how to get rid of them. I think we’d find out that they are lower than we think between performers and much higher between critics and the hardcore audiences, but that a few people here and there have managed to tunnel through.

    Ask these people how. How were they exposed to each, what would their dream union between the two consist of, that sort of thing. Instead of wondering what the strange tribe with their odd customs and garb are thinking, look at your own numbers and see if you can find any of that tribe among yourselves, and ask.

    Again, this is probably partly because I selfishly want to find out that I’m not the only one inhabiting the overlap. :-)

    BTW, I talk too much …

  30. Janis says

    BTW, another part of the problem? Rock and pop aren’t public-domain yet. Classical is.

    1) That means that classical music should be considered more participatory than rock/pop, but it’s not. Odd.

    2) It also means that the money issues involved in blending the two definitely come down harder on the classical side since they probably can’t afford to buy rights to adapting rock/pop.

    The money issues also put huge barriers in the way of something like getting Nikolai Lugansky and EVH together to adapt Rach’s MM4. Just another part of the problem …

  31. says

    Janis you are certainly not the only one out there longing for something different and wishing things were more fluid between genres in the classical music establishment. You are right that the barriers between genres are mostly artificial and that there is much “important and great” music in ALL genres (or what I’m really interested in, music that goes beyond genre to have elements of many things yet doesn’t speak to any one particular thing). I think this is where many of my peers are looking at and where many in today’s audience are as well. Like John Shibley said in an earlier comment, the classical world establishment hasn’t seen (or slow to act) that the world has changed and that riding the “important and great music” meme won’t get the same results in terms of audience or prestige in today’s general public as it did even 50 years ago. Actually, this is also a similar critique I have with Jazz at Lincoln Center (the closest the jazz world has to a cultural established organization). Maybe it all is just a problem that any large institution is conservative and reluctant and slow to change and adjustment.

    In some ways I think I am an ideal audience member that classical music should be interested in this new world (a non-white face, educated, open-minded and enthusiastic about all kinds of music, with disposable income to actually go to performances and youngish–showing my age, because all of your 80’s references resonated quite well with me!) yet the classical establishment seem to be doing much (programming, marketing, etc.) to make things uninteresting to me and others like me and it seems, people like you. As I said earlier it would be great if the establishment institutions actually had people with love-of-multiple-music-worlds in the organization (with real programming power) to be in on what gets performed and how to market it more attractively in today’s world. Not a total solution, but it would help attract more people like us to the performances, more often and more importantly, more enthusiastic about the experience. And maybe we (people wanting change) need to seek out those non-establishment groups/ensembles that are out here doing the creative, interesting programming, marketing, and connecting with today’s audiences. (This is a little self-serving but I’m not only speaking about myself) maybe if the establishment is slow or unwilling or unable to face the new world, then I think we should go to performances, buy mp3s/CDs, swag and talk to others about those that are willing to realize it and do something about it. Not to abandon the establishment because it does have its place, but to put it on notice that we do want something different from them. With all of their resources, they can be so much more…

  32. Janis says

    Joe, I think I have an easier time shaking off the elitism because of my background. I have a very working-class, lunchbucket, “one paycheck away from penury” background with a blue-collar and a pink-collar parent, and few of my relatives one generation back could speak English or read their native language.

    The advantage regards classical music and opera is that their native language was Italian. :-) I was raised in a sea of classical music and opera, and the bone-deep absolute conviction that it was our music. When half your elderly relatives can sing whole operas unaccompanied, your machine repairman father knows the Victor book like the back of his hand, and your pink-collar receptionist mom was one of the best youth violinists of her day, you accept that it’s your music no matter how much money your family doesn’t have. :-)

    I didn’t really run into “outside” music until I was in my early teens; thankfully, there was a lot of rock music going on that sounded good to an ear tuned to classical and opera (Styx == Baroque opera, Steve Perry == opera singer doing blues with a rock band, Queen == Farinelli and Company).

    That, and most of the white people in the area with more money that us also thought that sort of music was “dumb” and “uncool.” I seem to have absorbed the notion that monied Anglos had no taste for our music. I think it allows me to ignore the caviar and cruise advertisements in the program brochures with no effort.

    Also agreed about not being able to ride “important and great” any further … I also wonder if it’s not just never going to bounce back to where it was, period. Before the coming of the phonograph, common radio-play music, and rock/pop music, what else WAS there, really? The phonograph itself may have demolished the absolute monopoly that classical music had on the cultural unity of Western society. Now that there are other forms of music that are commonly shared and known, the audience for any one kind of music is of course going to be smaller.

    So the issue may not be that the classical world was once much larger and has decreased in appeal, but that it once held an artificially high monopoly on people’s cultural awareness simply because of lack of easily found alternatives. Seriously, before the coming of the phonograph, how many songs could a far-flung culture in a horse-and-cart world have in common other than Beethoven and Mozart?

    The “important and serious” music meme isn’t enough now to get people to go to concerts … but it may not have been why people went to them even when the average age was lots younger. Seriously, what was there that specifically appealed to young adults in the pre-radio, pre-automobile world?

    Has the decrease in the classical music audience come about as a result of damage and stagnation to that world … or is it simply a reasonable and expected adjustment of audience percentages now that there are so many culturally common forms of music to compete with it? Was “important and great” ever the reason people listened, or were there just no alternatives?

  33. Janis says

    Quick reply to David about responding to surfaces versus essences in Pach’s Canon:

    The guitarists you describe probably are going on surface impressions in the Canon … but what will happen is they will ride those surface impressions down to other depths that have nothing to do with the Canon. They certainly won’t stay at a surface level through the whole thing, even if they just see the Canon itself as a fairly standard chord progression. It’s just that the depths they dive to will be over there in a seemingly unrelated spot instead of right here where the Canon happens to be.

  34. says

    Janis, I do think that the “important and great” was why many did listen. Long before my time, during the rise of the middle class, many hoped to accrue sophistication and upper mobility and listening to classical music and going to concerts was one way to appear “cultured”. All those books from “experts” in the 50s/60s with titles such as “The Lives of the GREAT Composers” or “The stories of 100 GREAT Operas” all seemed to me to try to tell you, “this is what is good, these are the things you need to know to be a cultured person.” Knowing who Toscanni and the NBC Orchestra were (and listening to them on the radio) or Bernstein and the NY Phil, seemed to me as de rigueur in being upwardly mobile. Sure we have some of that in today’s society, but I think, much less centralized in who says what is “cultured”.

    I think you might have something with the decreased monopoly of classical music due to the rise of recorded music. Just like recent explosion in literature, or more accurately the critical appreciation of literature not from dead (or living) white guys. The fact that there are many “important and great” books coming from women, blacks, Latinos, etc. and they are seen as part of the new literary canon is very refreshing. With so many more voices and perspectives heard along with the old canon (after all, great writing is great writing wherever it comes from), it seems to me that the world is so much richer now and much truer. That kind of diverse perspective is what I’m hoping for “classical music”.

  35. Janis says

    1) Joe, I wish there were a way to continue our conversation without taking over Greg’s blog!

    2) In a distant way, I can see what you’re saying about “culture,” but it’s still hard for me to grasp it entirely with my background of having had it so thoroughly looked down on by the social climbers in our working-class neighborhood. I never saw any member of the white working or lower middle class admire our music, really — I don’t think I saw that until I encountered people in a much higher economic stratum. And they still had a weird association with it, where they liked it as long as they could associate it with money in their minds. Sometimes I think that’s part of why even monied people may like classical music but draw the line at opera, which still has some of that blue-collar, goombah “machine gun in a violin case” tinge.

  36. says

    Well Janis, you can continue the discussion by commenting in a post on my blog titled Future Past Present (partly inspired by this conversation), which is the subject of my next Composer Salon (if you are in NYC, you (or anyone) can come to it on the 20th).

    It has been great thinking about these things, thanks Greg for providing the seed idea.

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